"On set, you could see we were making something special," Monroe says about the indie horror hit

Indie horror movie It Follows has developed quite the following.

David Robert Mitchell’s film about a demonic STD plaguing the teens of southeastern Michigan premiered last year at Cannes, had a limited release on March 13, and is now expanding to 1,200 screens on Friday. While it originally opened in just four locations, It Follows has gone on to become an unsettling must-see for horror fans thanks to widespread critical acclaim and word of mouth.

Maika Monroe’s grueling performance as the film’s main character is one of the highlights of It Follows that folks can’t stop talking about. Monroe, 21, plays teen Jay Height, the newest carrier of a disease or curse that causes a creepy, ever-changing presence to stalk carriers until it kills them or they sexually pass on the creepy plague to someone else.

The sunny California native talked to PEOPLE about the challenges and rewards of being a newly crowned scream queen, and what she does to escape the everyday stressors that “follow” her.

What has been your reaction to the overwhelming success of It Follows?

It’s crazy! We were filming on set. It’s this small little indie, and it’s not necessarily commercial. Going to the first festival, I remember it was the Cannes Film Festival, and reading the first reviews, and people liking it and thinking it was something different. It’s just kind of surreal.

How did you become involved with the movie?

I read the script and thought it was very weird and different. It wasn’t until I watched Mitchell’s last film that I could tell that this guy had a very unique style. His take on the horror genre is very interesting. So I sent an audition tape and talked to him on the phone about where the story came from and what he wanted to do with this film. After that, I was like “Okay, I need to do this.”

What did Mitchell say about where the story came from, because there aren’t many clues in the movie about the origin of this “disease”?

It came from his nightmares. When he was a kid, it was a recurring dream that he had. It just stuck with him. It was this continuous dream of something following him; sometimes it would be his family or someone he didn’t know. It got to the point where he was like, “I should make a movie out of this.”

What was it like being the lead in this movie?

It was very difficult. I didn’t realize how hard it is to make a horror film, especially this movie. Every day was something else: screaming, running, crying, all that good stuff. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, but it was a very special group of people. This director is going places. On set, you could see we were making something special. I just didn’t realize to what extent other people would find it special as well.

What was the hardest scene for you to film?

The wheelchair scene, where I was tied up. It was our last day of filming, the fifth week of our shoot. It was the coldest night of the year so far, because that’s how life works. I was in a bra and shorts outside shooting for seven hours. Everyone else was in massive coats and beanies and gloves. In between takes they would have to bring in blankets and wrap me up. I had to stay in this weird place the whole time, because it was an intense scene.

How about your favorite part about making It Follows?

I don’t know if I could pick a scene, because they are all so intense. But my favorite part about making the movie was probably working with the director. How he works with you is incredible. He’s so specific and knows exactly what he wants. When you have complete trust in a director, it’s a very good thing.

Do you consider yourself a horror movie fan?

Yeah, I think so. I grew up watching really great horror movies that my dad introduced me to. I think The Shining is one of the first horror movies I remember seeing. Also, Halloween, Blue Velvet and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The good ones. There is something so fun about scaring yourself.

As a viewer, what was the scariest part of It Follows for you?

It’s so hard for me. I try to watch the movie as a whole and without paying attention to my face, which is almost impossible. The part that gave me chills was when the giant bends down to get into the room and comes towards me. Man, that weirded me out.

What about this movie sets it apart from other horror movies?

I think there is something simple and elegant about it that you don’t see in horror movies these days. Horror movies are usually more in your face, gory and bloody. This is more gentle and beautiful to watch. The cinematography is incredible! It’s not trying to shove you into something. The characters are more realistic. It’s just quieter in a sense.

What projects do you have coming up in the future?

I have The Fifth Wave coming out in January 2016. It’s an adaptation of a very popular young adult novel. Chloë Grace Moretz is in it and I get to play this badass girl, which I am really excited about. You won’t even recognize me. I have completely black hair. I look very, very different.

I start filming Tribes of Palos Verdes with Jennifer Garner and Matt Dillon; that will be shooting in L.A. It’s a darker drama, and I am excited about that too.

When you aren’t working on a film, what do you enjoy doing?

I am a professional kiteboarder. If I know that I have a chunk of time off, usually I am trying to fly somewhere like Brazil or the Dominican Republic to get in the water and escape this insane industry.

What is the best place you’ve visited for kiteboarding?

Cape Town, South Africa, was pretty incredible. That’s probably the coolest place I have ever been, and the kiteboarding is insane there. It’s so windy, so you can get massive air.

Last question: If you could’ve been in any classic horror movie, which would it be?

Oh gosh! I would probably have to say The Shining. It would be incredible to work with Stanley Kubrick and go back in time.

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